One of the questions I get fairly regularly is, “what kind of handgun should I get for hogs?”

I’ve touched on this a time or two before, but I don’t think I’ve actually dedicated an entire post to answering this question.  I’m not a handgunning expert, and honestly, I’m not all that great with a pistol.  But I do occasionally hunt with one, and I’ve killed a couple animals with it.  Besides, the key concepts have nothing to do with my personal abilities… So let’s have a look at it now.

First of all, what do you really intend to do with this gun?  Will it be a primary hunting weapon, or is it going to be a “back-up”?  Or do you expect this be an all-around tool, for hunting, back-up, plinking, and self-defense?  This is an important question before you run out and spend several hundred dollars on a new handgun, because the fact is that there’s not really any such thing as the Swiss Army Knife of handguns.  Handguns are designed for specific purposes, and while there’s certainly some crossover, you need to be very clear what the primary purpose is going to be.

With that in mind, if you want a handgun primarily for hog hunting, you’ll want something with enough “oomph” to cleanly and quickly kill these tough animals.  You’ll also want something with reasonable accuracy, that’s easy to handle, and that can withstand the rough use that hog hunting usually dishes out.  Several states also have specific minimum requirements for a hunting handgun, such as minimum caliber and barrel length.  That’s going to rule out a lot of stuff on the market.  

Before we get too far down this road, let’s give a quick mention to the Thompson Contender  handguns (and other similar, single-shot platforms).  While there’s no question that these are, technically, handguns they really exist in a category to themselves.  Chambered in everything from rimfire to big-bore rifle calibers, the Contenders are supremely accurate and versatile.  They are an excellent choice for hunting purposes.  However, these aren’t what most people have in mind when they ask about handguns.

That said, I’m going to focus on more traditional handguns, semi-autos and revolvers.  Each of these has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, not to mention their faithful adherents.  There are dozens of articles out there that compare the pros and cons of revolvers vs. semi-autos, and I don’t really want to rehash them here except to summarize the key points: 

  • Revolvers generally have the edge in ease of use and reliability, while semi-autos offer larger magazine capacity and faster follow-up shots. 
  • Revolvers are available in a wider range of appropriate big-game calibers.
  • When it comes to accuracy, most shooters will find that revolvers with longer barrels are more accurate than semi-automatics.

Exceptions abound, of course.  With a reasonable amount of practice, a semi-auto can become second-nature to shoot quickly and accurately.  My friend, Ron Gayer is practically joined at the hip to his Desert Eagle .44mag, and I wouldn’t want to be the hog on the downrange end of that thing.  He loves it because it’s wicked medicine for a charging boar… fast, accurate, and powerful.  I can’t disagree. You can also find semi-autos in powerful calibers like the .50 Action Express, which is certainly plenty for a hog. 

But personally, my tastes trend toward a solid, single-action revolver like my Ruger Super Blackhawk.  There are only two things required to shoot this thing… cock the hammer and pull the trigger.  It’s not as fast as a semi-auto, or even the double-action revolvers, but you can count on this gun to cycle and fire.  An added benefit of the Ruger frame is that it can handle extremely hot loads that would dismantle many other revolvers on the market (and which be would totally unsafe to use in semi-autos). 

There’s something to be said for the double-action revolvers too, because they sort of cross the border between revolver and semi-auto.  By firing the first shot single-action, you can optimize the accuracy of the initial shot.  Then, should the circumstances call for it, you can continue to fire double-action until you’ve cycled the entire cylinder or the “threat” is eliminated.  Unfortunately, in most production models, the trigger pull for double-action is pretty stiff which has a significant, negative impact on accuracy.  A little work by a qualified gunsmith can resolve this problem, though, and might be worth the expense if you intend to use the gun a lot.  However, double-action revolvers are generally heavier and bulkier than single-action.  Without the extra work on the action, many hunters (including me) simply won’t see any benefit over a single-action. 

So there’s what I’ve got to offer on selecting a style and action.  A good bit of this decision should be based on your personal preference, of course, but I would definitely suggest giving some consideration to what I have written here, as well as what others have written on the subject.

So what about caliber?  How big of a gun do you need for hog hunting? 

First of all, as I’ve said before, you don’t need a howitzer to kill hogs, but you can’t use a pop-gun either.  I still remember an old farmhand slaughtering hogs with a .22 short, and I’ve finished off several hogs with my Browning 9mm.  But then again, slaughtering hogs at powderburn range is not hunting.  As hunters, we have a  responsibility to use enough gun to ensure a clean kill under hunting conditions. So how big is big enough? 

There are some handgun calibers out there that are simply insane, and totally unnecessary.  In that group, I include rounds like the Smith and Wesson  .500.  This opinion may offend a few folks, but I’ve shot this round and it is simply more than the average hunter can handle… and it’s more than the average hog hunter needs. 

In my opinion, for a primary hunting handgun, I’d recommend nothing smaller than the .41mag, and I’d prefer the .44mag.  The uptick in recoil is worth the trade off when it comes to the edge in terminal performance.  In my own experience, even the .44mag has a decidedly un-exciting impact on big pigs, and short of a perfect hit, will often take more than one round to seal the deal.  If you can handle the recoil, I’d suggest going even bigger, to the .454 Casull or .460 S&W.  However, recoil is a definite consideration for these big-bore hand cannons.  You have to be realistic about your capabilities, or you’re doomed to frustration.  There are some ways to deal with this, and we’ll tackle that in a minute.

The .45 Long Colt is another good option, with a critical qualification…  regular factory loads for this round are designed for antique revolvers.  Because of this, these loads are generally mild, and don’t offer the kind of thump you’ll want for a bigger hog.  For hog hunting, you’ll want to either handload “hot”, or look into some souped-up factory ammo from companies like Cor-Bon .  With stout loads and good bullets, the .45lc is a hog-killing machine!

I know there are a lot of folks out there who are sold on their .357mag, but the truth is that it’s a marginal round for big hogs.  A .357mag simply doesn’t hit hard enough or penetrate well enough to be considered a primary hog hunting round. I’ve got reliable, first-hand reports from several hunters who’ve had close calls or lost animals following multiple hits with this round. 

The .357 is fine as a back-up, if you think you’ll be using it for finishing shots or really close action.  It’s lightweight, easy for most people to shoot, and totally packable.  It’s also a reasonable choice for personal and home defense… particularly in a good, double-action configuration.  But for a primary hog gun, I would not recommend it.

When it comes to semi-autos, I get a lot of questions about the .40S&W and the .45ACP.  These rounds are both proven man-stoppers (the .45acp is, arguably, one of the first calibers designed for the express purpose of killing humans), but hogs are a heck of a lot tougher than people.  Neither of these rounds offers the penetration and terminal performance to make a good choice for a primary hog gun.  As with the .357, both would be fine for back-up purposes.  For a primary hunting gun in semi-auto, I’d look into the specialty guns such as Magnum Research’s  Desert Eagle in .44mag or .50AE.   

Now, let’s talk a second about recoil. 

Several hunters have asked me about a good hunting handgun for wives or youngsters who can’t handle the stiff recoil of, say, a .44mag.  The .41mag isn’t much more stout than the .357, and that’s about the best advice I’ll offer.  The bottom line is, you need a powerful handgun to consistently and cleanly kill hogs, and powerful handguns come with powerful recoil.  You can’t package that much energy in such a small platform without expecting some of that energy to transfer to the shooter. 

And that’s the first tip for minimizing recoil… a heavier gun will absorb more recoil than a light one.  I know folks often want to minimize weight, and there are some pretty cool innovations out there, such as the titanium frames that allow gunmakers to develop some insanely lightweight hand-cannons.  However, the trade-off is generally significant felt recoil (although good configuration can alleviate some of that).  A solid frame, longer barrel, and good grips will reduce felt recoil quite a bit. 

The other important tip is that practice teaches you to deal with the recoil.  The more you shoot, the more you’ll learn to process the kick.  Practice with light loads is also useful for developing your trigger control and sight picture without dealing with the heavy recoil of hunting loads. 

Even so, these big guns will hit back.  My Blackhawk with a 7.5″ barrel weighs close to 3lbs., and with hot handloads it still thumps me pretty hard.  The S&W Performance Shop .500 I test-fired weighed something like 5lbs, and was ported, and it still felt like holding a grenade in my hands when it went off.  The point is, big handguns have big recoil… if that’s an issue for you or your shooter, then a hog hunting handgun may not be the right choice.

What about accuracy?

Practice makes almost perfect.  Shooting a handgun accurately is not unlike shooting a bow.  You should practice until the muscle memory makes proper form and stance seem like second nature.  You need to hold the gun the same way, acquire your sight picture the same way, and pull the trigger the same way every time if you expect the bullet to hit where you’re aiming.  Let the basics lag for a moment and you’ll either miss or wound the animal. 

Most modern handguns are reasonably accurate, but it’s critical to recognize that you shouldn’t bring rifle accuracy expectations to the handgun range… at least not at first.  It takes a lot of practice for most people to develop the proper form and control to shoot a handgun with extreme accuracy.  Even then, minute-of-angle accuracy is uncommon in handguns (again, the single-shot Thompson Center-styled guns are a key exception).  In the hands of the average hunter, with production guns and standard ammo, a handgun is not a 100 yard gun.  In fact, I’d go so far to say that most hunters shouldn’t be shooting much over 50 or 60 yards at live animals with a handgun… even with a scope. Closer is better.

Another accuracy tip comes by way of my friend and real shooting expert, Andy Moe.  Andy’s standard recommendation for anyone looking to get into handgunning is to skip that big-bore gun at first.  Go ahead and buy a .22 and learn to shoot it well first.  This will allow you to learn the basics and get proficient without developing the bad habits and flinches that most new handgunners get from the big guns.  It’s excellent advice, and while it’s hard to follow in these days of instant gratification, I totally agree with him. 

A few other things regarding accuracy…

Longer barrels tend to enhance accuracy by providing a longer sighting plane, adding weight to reduce felt recoil, and adding stability by making the gun a little front-heavy.  They also help to limit muzzle flip, which doesn’t so much impact the accuracy of the shot as it does the ability to re-acquire the target.  Short-barreled guns can be very accurate in experienced hands, but for most hunters, 5 1/2″ to 7 1/2″ barrels are a good choice. 

You can change the grips on most handguns, so if the factory grips don’t feel right (too bulky, too small, etc.) it might help your shooting to change them out.  Pachmayr is one of the industry leaders in this area.  You may also be able to find a gunsmith who can help you fit the gun. 

The last consideration I want to hit on is ammunition choices.  In general, you’re looking for the same qualities in a handgun round that you want from your rifle ammo.  Pigs have thick skin, a heavy layer of fat, and big boars carry the cartiledge shield.  You need a bullet that penetrates well and retains its mass as it drives through the animal.  A lot of handgun hunters are big fans of cast lead bullets, because they offer all of the attributes mentioned here.  Another great choice is the Barnes DPX copper bullets.  Remember that most self-defense handgun rounds are designed to expand quickly and explosively, which makes them a poor choice for hog hunting. 

If you think handgun hog hunting is for you, it’s a great way to add a new dimension to the experience.  It combines the close-range excitement of bowhunting  with the confidence of using a firearm.  Add to that the simple fun of shooting handguns, and it’s a pretty good deal.  However, keep in mind that, just like bowhunting, you need to practice a lot to be effective.  Handgunning requires commitment.